The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle
Margarita Engle, award-winning author of verse novels, continues her stories of Cuba. In this book, she explores the life of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, also known as Tula, who becomes a revolutionary Cuban poet. Raised to be married off to save the family financially, Tula even as a young girl relates more closely with slaves and the books she is reading than with girls of her own age and her own social standing. As she reads more and more, sheltered by both her younger brother and the nuns at the convent, Tula starts to explore revolutionary ideas about freedom for slaves and for women. In a country that is not free, Tula herself is not free either and is forced to confront an arranged marriage, the brutality of slavery, and find her own voice.
Engle writes verse novels with such a beauty that they are impossible to put down. Seemingly light confections of verse, they are actually strong, often angry and always powerful. Here, Engle captures the way that girls are asked to sacrifice themselves for their families, the importance of education for young women, and the loss of self. She doesn’t shy away from issues of slavery either. At it’s heart though, this novel is about the power of words to free people, whether that is Tula herself, her brother or a family slave and friend.
Highly recommended, this is another dazzling and compelling novel from a master poet. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The Wild Book by Margarita Engle
Told in poems, this is the story of Engle’s maternal grandmother and her struggle with dyslexia. Known as Fefa, her grandmother was diagnosed with “word blindness” and told she would never read or write. Luckily, Fefa’s mother has an idea. She gives her daughter a blank book to fill with words, as if she is scattering wildflower seeds on the ground. At first Fefa’s words are hesitant and stilted, like seedlings. But steadily her writing and reading improve as she learns to take her time and gains confidence. And that reading is what saves her and her siblings from being kidnapped in the chaos following Cuba’s fight for independence.
Engle writes a gripping series of poems that range from celebrating the written word to the difficulties of dyslexia to the triumph of overcoming. Over the entire book the threat of violence and kidnappings hangs low and dark. It is clear that this is not a modern story from the very beginning and Engle cleverly reveals the extent of the chaos the family is living in the midst of through Fefa herself and her own growing knowledge.
As always, Engle’s verse is exceptional. Often her individual poems could be read one their own. Yet it is as one complete story that they really show their beauty. There are many exceptional stanzas to share, but one of my favorites comes early in the novel:
My little brothers love
to frighten me
by hiding lizards,
bugs, and spiders
in my bloomers.
Today it’s a frog,
but they tell me it’s a snake,
so I scream and tremble
until I can clearly see
that the little creature
like jittery letters
on a blinding
The skin of a frog
feels just as slippery
and tricky as a wild
Engle traces the love of words and poetry Fefa’s own mother, who shares poems with her family. It’s a beautiful celebration of that history and those words.
This novel in verse is a powerful look at Cuba’s history and also at dyslexia and overcoming challenges. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle
Engle’s latest historical novel in verse explores piracy in the Caribbean Sea in the 1500s. It is the story of Quebrado, a fictionalized character, who is a slave aboard a pirate ship. Also on the ship is Alonso de Ojeda who has been captured. That ship, owned by real historical figure Bernardino de Talavera, becomes shipwrecked. The story is populated by people from history, but told primarily through the voice of Quebrado. It is a pirate story that removes the swashbuckling glamour and tells the bitter truth about what piracy was.
Engle captures such emotion in her verse, creating moments of pain, wonder and even delight in this brutal story. The book is immensely engaging, thanks to its brisk pace and lively subject matter. There is adventure and even a touch of romance in this story, giving light in the darkness of slavery and piracy.
Engle pays close attention to the native people of the islands, allowing glimpses into their lives and their beliefs. They make a great foil to the lying, manipulations of the pirates. It is a story that is elegantly crafted and vividly written.
A great choice for late elementary and middle school students who are interested in history and pirates. This is a book that is fast, fascinating and fabulous. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.
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The Firefly Letters by Margarita Engle
I have adored Engle and her poetry since first reading her Poet Slave of Cuba. This historical novel told in verse tells the story of early Swedish feminist Fredrika Bremer and her travels in Cuba. While in Cuba she inspires and changes the lives of two women, a slave named Cecilia and a wealthy young woman named Elena. At first amazed and shocked by the freedom Fredrika demonstrates, Elena warms to her as she begins to understand that the future could be different than just an arranged marriage. Cecilia finds in Fredrika a woman who looks beyond her slave status and a role model for hope. Told in Engle’s radiant verse, this is another novel by this splendid author that is to be treasured.
As with all of her novels, Engle writes about the duality of Cuba: the dark side and the light, the beauty and the ugliness. Once again she explores the horrific legacy of slavery without flinching from its truth. Against that background of slavery, she has written a novel of freedom. It is the story of a woman who refused to be defined by the limitations of her birth and her sex, instead deciding to travel and write rather than marry. Fredrika is purely freedom, beautifully contrasted with the two women who are both captured in different ways and forced into lives beyond their control.
Beautifully done, this book is an excellent example of the verse novel. Each poem can stand on its own and still works to tell a cohesive story. At times Engle’s words are so lovely that they give pause and must be reread. This simply deepens the impact of the book. Engle also uses strong images in her poems. In this book, fireflies are an important image that work to reveal light and dark, as well as freedom and captivity.
Highly recommended, this author needs to be read by those who enjoy poetry, those who enjoy history, and those who simply are looking for great writing. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.